I’m on the patio of a stilt house in a tiny Tay minority village, close to the shore of Ba Be Lake in Bắc Kạn Province, Northeast Vietnam and this may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
I’ve been sat here for a few minutes or maybe a few hours, you really can’t tell when everything is so quiet and still. The view is a painting, definitely a watercolour because everything is so wet; the mountains, their curves like the backs of sleeping giants, are haloed with mist; the lake is a sharp knife glittering in the middle distance; the foreground is rice fields in huge brushstrokes of yellow, brown and green. There is so little sound and so much space I can hear the slap of ducks’ feet on wet soil, birdsong in the trees on the edge of the mountains and kids playing football way up the street.
Women in the rice fields bend ninety degrees at the hip and bob up and down planting rice. I think I’ll take a photo of their progress, one every few hours then I can put them all side by side and watch the patch of land turn from brown to green but it feels like too much effort to set it up and at the rate they’re going at they’ll have it done in the next few hours anyway.
So I’ve had all these thoughts about where I am and I’ve written them all down. It’s about 11am on our first day here and already I’m thinking, okay, what’s next? The Tay village is tiny, just a few stilt houses clustered together on a bend in the road. The people are…just people, getting on with their lives, looking after their crops and pigs and chickens and paying us no attention at all. We know we’re not the first tourists in these parts because we’ve already found an enterprising old lady selling cans of coke and mars bars from her front porch.
Trekking is the thing here but I don’t trek. With no car, no bike and legs that sometimes refuse to do what you ask them, being in the countryside can feel a bit like house arrest. From everything I had heard about Sapa – once a minority village market town now a tourist trap complete with concrete hotels and ‘fast food’ – I needed an alternative and Ba Be was the perfect choice. My kindle is loaded with a few new books, some Jon Ronson, Wolf Hall which is nice and long and a short story collection by Margaret Atwood so I know I won’t go crazy.
Two couples arrive to stay in the rooms next to ours and I hate myself for it but my initial reaction is mild irritation, like our secret hideaway, that I was already thinking might be too hidden away, has been invaded. Dhani and Evy, James and Jess, their names have assonance and alliteration and from first introductions I really like them all and after mere minutes I’m glad they came. We share a meal and our secret hideaway for two becomes a secret hideaway for six.
Three days are gone in a heartbeat – slow walks, lakes, caves, noodles, conversations about international aid and eating dog meat in Hanoi, sleeping, reading, loud frogs at night, no hot water, huge moths – and we’re back on the street with our backpacks at our feet, from six back to two, waiting to get back on the public bus.
For more practical information than I’m ever able or willing to provide see the Rough Guide for Ba Be, it’s pretty helpful.